One of the less popular of Shakespeare’s tragedies, it’s a rare treat to see a stage production of Coriolanus.
One of the main reasons it’s not in as popular as Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet is audiences find Coriolanus impenetrable. Reflective moments are few and far between amidst scenes of blood and thunder and political intrigue. There is little in terms of soliloquies, which are hallmarks of his greatest plays.
The great challenge of putting flesh on the bones of Coriolanus in this production lay in the hands of Tom Hiddleston and Donmar Artistic Director, Josie Rourke. The first thing you notice on his entrance is how much of a physical presence Hiddleston has; he towers over the small chamber space of the Donmar Warehouse and other cast members, every inch the Hollywood star he has become of late.
His Coriolanus is at turns brutal and tragic. His battle in the first Act with Aufidius is breath-taking in its realism. Every blow looks like it was meant to land. Subsequently there’s a shocking scene when Coriolanus writhes in pain as he tries to shower exposing the scars of battle on his torso, as the water turns blood red.
As valiant as he is on the battlefield, he is revealed as emotionally inadequate off it. Our eponymous hero is obstinate in his refusal to pander for votes from the plebeians, which ultimately leads to his exile from Rome. He suffers from his domineering matriarch, Volumnia; the Lady Macbeth of the piece. Deborah Findley plays the role with absolute gusto with every moment of menace and sorrow etched on her face even before the lines are read out.
Other notable highlights include Birgitte Hjort Sørensen of Borgen fame as the suffering wife, Virgilia, Mark Gatiss as the comical Patrician, Menenius and in a piece of controversial casting, the role of treacherous Sicinia being changed to a female character and played by the brilliant Helen Schlesinger. This after all is the theatre that brought you an all-female version of Julius Caesar.
Tom Hiddleston’s execution of the role is script perfect, although doubts remain whether he might be too smooth, too slick to play a “soldier’s soldier”; hence the director has added the shower scene where he reveals his naked wounds. Aufidius’s homoerotic overtures towards Coriolanus are perhaps rather overplayed by Hadley Fraser.
The set is effectively stripped down bar some chairs and a graffiti wall used effectively to display the mood of the plebeians and for the battle scenes. The economy and simplicity of the set helps to add clarity to the play.
It may not have the great soliloquies of Shakespeare’s other plays, but Coriolanus is a work of real maturity. It marks the only moment in all his plays to define a moment of silence.
Near the end of the play, “Hold her by the hand, silent” marks the moment our lead is no longer angry and is wiser than his mother to his ultimate fate. He is consigned as a traitor by the Romans and the Volscians and ultimately signs his own death warrant. Tom Hiddleston more than capably encapsulates the complexities of such a fascinating but ultimately flawed character.
Performed on Saturday 21 December 2013 at the Donmar Warehouse in London.